(The following piece on The Gift and The End of the Tour will be littered with details about the film’s endings. Be warned. Warned I say.)
A strange thing happened while watching The Gift, the new thriller by writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton. As occasionally occurs, fragments of ideas were popping into my head for a review. I was all ready to start off with a time-machine opener, about how The Gift will be that movie one year from now you finally saw and wondered why nobody mentioned it.
Then the ending happened.
Then I kind of hated the movie.
Now, I can say for sure there is a great deal to admire about Edgerton’s work here. Tension is capably crafted as the happenings linger in the discomfort of the moment. His story, about a married couple (Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman) running into an old classmate of the husband (Edgerton), has interesting revelations. This isn’t so much a movie with a big twist, instead uncoiling scene by scene, layering the backgrounds of all three characters. Troubling elements of each one get limelight, from Hall’s drug abuse to Bateman’s bullying and finally to Edgerton’s penchant for lies. Additionally, each member of this ensemble is quite good, even if Edgerton’s performance occasionally teeters into a tad mannered. Hall is particularly top notch, finally getting a quality film that is more than the dull romantic foil or victim.
That is until the end. The last ten or so minutes of The Gift definitely allow Hall’s character some small semblance of control, as she declares the end of her relationship with Bateman after it’s revealed that his history of manipulating situations remains ever-present. Yet, in the end, Hall really is just another victim. The trope of the woman who suffered a miscarriage is already one cross to bear. Edgerton adds onto that rape victim or, at best, drugged woman who gets dragged around so somebody can say he might have raped her. This is a Nolan level mindset, where the abuse or death of a woman is basically the driving point of things.
For all the interesting shades Edgerton provides Hall to play, in the end she is merely there to make Bateman’s character uncomfortable about what happened to her. Was she raped? Is the child Bateman’s? Whatever the side you come down on, we end with a woman once more having no say and being the emotional driving force for the man via her abuse.
Now, as for The End of the Tour; oh well. I openly stated my worries about the movie ahead of time. Primarily, I fretted that I was “too close” to the material, which is of course an absurd thing to feel. While David Foster Wallace is probably my favorite writer not named Alan Moore, it isn’t like I knew him, had memorized his biographies or anything along those lines. It just seemed like, from the trailer, buzz and several pieces, that the movie played to mythologizing the man.
It’s a sensation I couldn’t shake for a moment. Director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Marguiles adapted David Lipsky’s book that chronicled a nearly week-long interview session with Wallace as he wrapped up his ‘Infinite Jest’ tour. Perhaps every word said in the film happened as such. Perhaps Wallace always acted with the haze of insecurity brought on by relentless self-reflection that Jason Segel and the creative team portray him as having. The fact Lipsky has audio of the transgressions implies one thing. The fact that many of those closest to him, including his family, all find this rendition of Wallace to be inauthentic, implies another.
I just couldn’t shake the sense that the movie was constantly shaping an idea of this man; super-genius in a common man’s ethos. It isn’t that Segel is bad. One just gets a perception that Wallace is ready to slit his wrists at a moment’s notice. Bookending things with Lipsky’s discovery and reaction to Wallace suicide in 2008 only hurt matters, sharpening the focus on the man’s every utterance. Each scene has a big distraction in the middle of it, no matter how well done it is otherwise. And it is well done otherwise. Jesse Eisenberg is good as Lipsky, an intellectual whose own ambitions have been smacked down to Earth after the lackluster reaction to his first novel. Watching Eisenberg’s Lipsky and Segel’s Wallace really tear into a subject, be it fame or Die Hard, moves things along nicely, with the former always trying to egg on just a hair more for his “Rolling Stone” piece.
Yet, that problem stands there. In struggling to find the words to describe my problem, one of which I recognize appears to be largely my own, I found two interesting analyses that mirror my mindset. The first is by Glenn Kenny, who wrote for The Guardian, “Wallace the artist and Wallace the conversationalist take a distant back seat to Wallace the eventual suicide. Even when he’s cracking wise, there’s no light or lightness to the character. When uttering lines like “I’d rather be dead” or “I’m not so sure you want to be me”, Segel might as well be nudging the viewer in the ribs. He, and the movie, insists that suicide loomed over everything Wallace did a full 12 years before the end.”
Matching that was Jesse Cataldo at Sland Magazine, who stated, “Lipsky is given surface qualities and internal conflicts, but his character is patently a device, a way for the filmmakers to try and comprehend Foster Wallace’s famously complex intellect. The film attempts to account for this imbalance through its careful depiction, but by positioning the deceased writer as indecipherable curiosity first, human being second, it can’t help but put him in a box. The insistent awareness of this fact doesn’t negate the fact that it’s happening, especially since no special effort is expended to deepen the portrayal beyond a stripped-down approach and a keen focus on performance. Foster Wallace therefore ends up inexorably enshrined as a certain type of sacred figure: the schlubby working-class genius seeking love and getting adulation instead, an anti-celebrity consumed by his foibles, addictions, and insecurities.”
I will watch The End of the Tour again. I hope to watch it with more open eyes. At this juncture, I can’t tell if it’s the movie or me.